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Reclaiming New York for Local Arts: ABC No Rio | The Nation

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Reclaiming New York for Local Arts: ABC No Rio

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Kevin Erickson

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"It is important to focus attention on the way artists get used as pawns by greedy white developers.

It is important for artists to express solidarity with Third World and oppressed people.

It is important to show that people are not helpless--they can express their resentment with things-as-they-are in a way that is constructive, exemplary, and interesting.

It is important to try to bridge the gap between artists and working people by putting artwork on a boulevard level.

It is important to do something dramatic that is neither commercially oriented nor institutionally quarantined--a groundswell of human action and participation with each other that points up currents of feeling that are neither for sale nor for morticing into the shape of an institution.

It is important to do something that people (particularly in the art community) cannot immediately identify unless they question themselves and examine their own actions for an answer.

It is important to have fun.

It is important to learn."

--excerpts from The Real Estate Show Manifesto, 1980.

The story of ABC No Rio has always been one about creative engagement with the politics of space. It began on New Year's Eve in 1979 when a group of artists invaded a vacant storefront on Delancey Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side. At the time, the neighborhood was blighted by widespread arson and a culture of drug addiction.

During the 1970s, thousands of buildings in New York City had been abandoned by their landlords, became property of the city through foreclosure, and sat vacant and neglected. The art exhibition on Delancey Street entitled "The Real Estate Show" was a provocation: why should these spaces sit idle? Watching the grainy black and white video footage that documented the event, there's a palpable sense of indignant playfulness as trash was cleared away and art crudely taped to walls. Neighborhood kids joined in the fun, drawing on the walls and interacting with the sculptures.

The city authorities were not amused. Police padlocked the building and the artwork was rudely confiscated and shipped to a warehouse across town. As one reviewer noted at the time, "the show's basic ideological premise--that artists, working people, and the poor are systematically screwed out of decent places to exist in--could not have been brought home with more brutal irony."

The story could have ended there, had the artists conceded defeat--instead they chose to fight. The city's reaction seemed overboard, and it quickly became an embarrassment as artists mounted a protest campaign. Articles also appeared in the media discussing the art show and the issues it raised, including the city's failure to provide basic improvements to the neighborhood. Fearing further negative publicity, the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) eventually relented, and granted the artists a month-to-month lease for a storefront space a block north on Rivington Street, in an abandoned beauty parlor.

Across the street from 156 Rivington, the artists noticed a sign that originally read "ABOGADO CON NOTARIO"--"lawyer and notary public" in Spanish. But the sign was badly worn and most of the letters had fallen off; all that remained was "AB...... C.. NO..RIO." The name is an enduring reminder both of the project's placement in a neighborhood that was once largely Latino, and of the fundamental praxis that informed the project; one of constructive reclamation and reinvention emerging out of urban decay.

Adapting to Economic Changes

Twenty-seven years later on a sweltering June evening, I'm wandering around the Lower East Side, trying to find the opening of an art show. The neighborhood has been through big changes since "The Real Estate Show." In the 1980s, cheap (or nonexistent) rent continued to attract artists and bohemians being priced out of their Tribeca and SoHo neighborhoods; they lived here alongside the working poor and immigrant communities that had traditionally inhabited the neighborhood. But the New Economy of the '90s brought an influx of yuppies following the trail that artists had forged, and the skyrocketing rents forced out many of the neighborhood's traditional populations. Boutique hotels and trendy sidewalk bars have been displacing the bodegas and affordable housing ever since.

I finally find it--a modest four-story tenement building next door to a matzo factory. As I enter through a welded gate made from reclaimed rebar and old gears, a swarm of butterflies crafted from grapefruit skin hovers above my head. Layers of graffiti and murals cover the exterior.

A rack of handbills gives the details on ABC No Rio's wide range of programming and community resource offerings. Almost every day of the week, you can find something happening here. Poetry readings, improvised music performances, art shows, Food Not Bombs gatherings, and hardcore matinees--all take place in the first-floor performance space, where tonight street artists mingle with punk kids and a few older art enthusiasts sip wine from plastic cups. The artwork is stridently political. Later, these works will be auctioned off in support of Books Through Bars, an activist group that sends unwanted books to prisoners nationwide.

Climbing the building's dimly lit staircase, I find the upper floors filled with activity. In the darkroom, a volunteer is showing a father and his two young kids how to print photos. From a nearby meeting room, I hear the familiar din of collective decision-making in progress. In the cavernous zine library, another volunteer is just getting ready to lock up for the night.

Each of the projects is operated by its own autonomous collective, and all are entirely volunteer-run. It's the space that makes it all possible. No Rio provides them with an infrastructure, a space, a blank canvas to be filled in, and the tools to do it.

Whose City? Our City!

The next day, I return to 156 Rivington to talk with Steven Englander, director of ABC No Rio. I want to find out how this became possible--that through all the changes and challenges happening in the neighborhood, No Rio not only remained open and active more than a quarter-century later, but successfully came to own their building.

Steve is the only paid employee at ABC No Rio. He seems to radiate a rare combination of equanimity and infectious determination, making him the kind of person you can immediately identify as a veteran activist. You can also tell he's told this story a million times, but he's happy to retell it once more for me.

The Lower East Side has a long history of political radicalism, dating back to the early garment workers' unions and Emma Goldman's residency. But in the 1980s, a great deal of the neighborhood's political energy concerned the politics of public space and real estate.

In an attempt to "clean up" the neighborhood, police action had intensified in the '80s and early '90s. A 1988 riot in Tompkins Square Park saw police forcefully driving out the homeless and violently clashing with protestors. Squatters who had occupied abandoned buildings now were being forced out so the city could auction these vacant buildings to real estate developers.

ABC No Rio, in addition to its politically oriented cultural programming, served as a meeting place and resource for activists, and became closely associated with the squatters' movement. "Back then," Steve tells me, "a lot of the people who came to No Rio and did stuff here actually lived in the neighborhood. And that's not true anymore, just because of gentrification."

Yet, contrary to some misperceptions, ABC No Rio was itself never really a squat. ABC No Rio was always paying rent to the city, in accordance with the terms of its month-to-month lease. "So it was legal, with varying degrees of paralegal situations in the upper floors," Steven explained.

In the mid-'90s, the city of New York was a lousy landlord, stretched beyond its means trying to care for the thousands of crumbling buildings it now owned. It fell to those involved with ABC No Rio to take care of the space. There were massive problems with the heating and plumbing systems, which lead to a series of disputes with the city. Rent was sometimes withheld to fund repairs, and the city would threaten eviction for nonpayment.

Steve remembers that these disputes made the people who were involved in running the place "rightly nervous that the city was going to try to evict them again. So they then invited people to move into the upper floors of this building as squatters to defend the building in case the city tried to do a lockout."

The city stopped cashing the monthly rent checks and filed eviction papers, claiming that the building wasn't structurally sound. They offered No Rio some alternative sites in Brooklyn but these were far away from the core audience on the Lower East Side, and without public transit access. It wasn't until this period in the mid-'90s that people who were self-conscious squatters took over the upper floors--this was simply a practical response to prevent a lockout.

The battle was fought on multiple fronts; a pro bono legal team did everything possible to hang up the eviction proceedings in court. (At one point No Rio's legal case rested on the city having illegally cut the power to the lightbulb in the building's doorway.) Contacts in the media were enlisted to write articles sympathetic to No Rio's plight, and protestors took to the streets for a series of demonstrations. No Rio's deep connections to the activist community became vital to its survival.

Mayor Giuliani's administration attempted to deal with the problem of neglected city-owned buildings by transitioning them to private ownership: both by wealthy developers and nonprofit housing developers. As a hub of activity for the squatters, and as a gritty graffiti-covered building in a gentrifying neighborhood, it was clear that ABC No Rio stood in the way of the city's development plans. So the HPD tried a new strategy: pitting supporters of low-income housing against supporters of the arts. The city enlisted a group called Asian Americans For Equality (AAFE), which was planning a low-income housing project at another city-owned site in SoHo. The city made it a condition of the deal that AAFE also take over possession of 156 Rivington St., and convert it into three units of low-income housing.

No Rio began by trying to negotiate with AAFE to rent the first-floor performance and gallery space and let AAFE's residential project proceed on the upper floors. But those negotiations broke down because AAFE wanted No Rio to pay the market rate--far more than they could possibly afford. Soon, AAFE found themselves the targets of a barrage of protests and letter writing campaigns for their complicity in the effort to evict ABC No Rio, and eventually AAFE pulled out of the project.

The protest campaign culminated in a sit-in occupation of the NYC Housing and Public Development offices in February 1997. Protestors snuck into the office of the HPD Commissioner at the time, Liliam Barrios-Paoli. As Steve recalls, "Instead of calling the cops she just invited the protestors in to the big conference room and they just talked about stuff for a couple of hours." Barrios-Paolli stunned the activists by actually listening to their concerns and arguments. But the biggest surprise was still to come.

"They scheduled another meeting with the No Rio board and the people who were staying here. And we went to the meeting, and the commissioner said, 'We'll sell you the building for a dollar. You've got to raise the money to renovate it and dedicate it for community use, for your projects and programs, but we'll give you the building.'"

Why this sudden reversal? Steve thinks that Barrios-Paoli "was on her way out," about to be put in charge of a different agency, and "was just sort of sympathetic to the protestors." It's probably significant that Barrios-Paoli was later booted from her post in the Giuliani administration for refusing the mayor's orders to throw welfare recipients off the rolls. Today she heads up a Manhattan children's advocacy nonprofit called Safe Space.

As Steve tells it, "No Rio had, throughout its history, always somehow managed to walk the line between militancy and reputability in the right way so as to end up with a positive tangible result. It's a tough balance to maintain, but it gets results, especially if you're lucky enough to come across government officials who are willing to listen."

At last, on June 29, 2006, almost a decade after the sit-in at HPD, the city officially sold the four-story tenement building at 156 Rivington St. to its tenant, ABC No Rio, for the sum of one dollar.

Going Legit

The transfer of ownership was a huge victory that took years to accomplish, yet this victory just cleared the way for more challenges. In accordance with the conditions attached to the deal with the city, funds must continue to be raised for the continued renovations, and No Rio had to kick out the upstairs tenants to make the whole building a public space.

Steve sees this as a lesson about compromise; " ... the city wasn't going to unconditionally surrender. You know, usually activists lose. You don't get to win that often. So most people realized that we had to get the compromise so that we could claim a victory."

As it turns out, after consulting with architects and structural engineers about the building's infrastructure, they decided that the best, safest plan was to start over from scratch. The price tag is hefty (now approaching nearly $2 million), but the plans actually seem pretty modest.

Steve also doesn't seem concerned that the activists and punk kids might consider the construction of an expensive new facility to be an abandonment of the DIY ethics that fuel the project. "I think when we rebuild the building there'll be a slightly different vibe, because the environment you're in impacts your relationship to the space. But I think people will respond by doing better work. For people who perform in this space, the acoustics will be better."

Indeed, I was surprised to find that the volunteers I talked to at the booking collective meeting before the Saturday matinee punk show largely agreed that the radical possibilities opened up by sustainability outweigh any attachment to the aesthetics of dilapidation; they're not scared of going legit.

The identity of the project may change in the new building, but it seems that No Rio has always been changing as different programs develop and grow. It's an "institution," but not in the pejorative sense. Where visual art was the initial impetus, performance and video art was the signature form practiced here during the '80s. Today, No Rio is best known for its association with all-ages punk and hardcore. But even those genre boundaries are non-dogmatic--on the weekend I visited, an eight-piece brass band called Why Are We Building Such A Big Ship? from New Orleans was the headliner at the Saturday matinee, and the kids went nuts.

Who knows what innovations the next generation of artist-activists will dream up for the new space? While there's something exciting about reclaiming discarded spaces on the cultural margins knowing that they won't last, there's something permanently radical about endeavoring to build a sustainable project. This means nurturing a long-term commitment to a particular space, digging your heels in and making sure that kids have a safe place to gather, work on creative projects, and develop a critical consciousness about their place in the world.

ABC No Rio has soldiered on for years, and successfully carved out a 4000-square-foot chunk of possibility. Even in uphill battles, sometimes the good guys win.

Kevin Erickson, 26, was studying religion and cultural politics at Whitman College in tiny Walla Walla, Washington, when he discovered the Pacific Northwest's vibrant underground music scene and fell in love with the radical potential of incubating DIY cultural resistance in small communities. Today, he is part of a team of artists, musicians, and friends running an arts space the Department of Safety in Anacortes, Washington. It's an all-ages music venue, gallery, recording facility, art studio, and zine library. Kevin is also a writer, recording engineer, and musician, with one recent collaboration touted as "intermittently tolerable" by Pitchfork.

ABC NO RIO Vitals:

Located:

Lower East Side, Manhattan, NYC.

Founded:

1980.

Org Type:

501 (c)(3) non-profit, "collective of collectives."

Music Genre of Focus:

Punk and hardcore, folk-punk, experimental/ improvisatory.

Goings On:

Exhibitions of visual art, experimental and improvisational music, poetry readings. The facility also houses a community darkroom, silkscreen studio, computer lab facilities, and a zine library, and is home to the local chapter of Food Not Bombs.

Fees:

All shows are $6. Use of the darkroom is $6/hr and $2/hr for the computer center.

Where the money comes from:

About 40% of ABC NO RIO's budget comes from earned income: proceeds from shows and events, user fees for the darkroom and silkscreen studio, etc. Another 40% is grant money. The last 20% comes from individual donations. The organization accepts no money from corporate donors.

Claims to Fame:

Beck, Michelle Shocked, Born Against, Go! and Huasipuango played some of their first shows at ABC No Rio. And visual artists such as Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer and David Wojnarowicz spent time at No Rio.

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